Engaging students: Negative and zero exponents

In my capstone class for future secondary math teachers, I ask my students to come up with ideas for engaging their students with different topics in the secondary mathematics curriculum. In other words, the point of the assignment was not to devise a full-blown lesson plan on this topic. Instead, I asked my students to think about three different ways of getting their students interested in the topic in the first place.

I plan to share some of the best of these ideas on this blog (after asking my students’ permission, of course).

This student submission again comes from my former student Gary Sin. His topic, from Algebra: negative and zero exponents.

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How could you as a teacher create an activity or project that involves your topic?

The idea behind negative and zero exponents is to basically go backwards in our method of obtaining answers to positive exponents. I can create an activity where the students will begin by applying their knowledge on positive exponents represented on a number line and how every exponent increase in 1 multiplies the previous number by the base. I can then ask the students to point out a pattern they notice between the answers as the exponents increase. The students will realize that the answer is always the previous answer multiplied by the base.

Now I will ask the students what will happen if we went backwards down the number line instead. The students will then realize that going backwards meant dividing the next answer by the base. With this realization, I will guide the students all the way back to the first power and ask them what will happen now if we kept dividing by the base. The students will figure out that the zero exponent of a base would be 1. I will continue by asking the students what will happen now if we kept going and dividing by the base. The students will finally realize that negative exponents will meant dividing the answers repeatedly by the base. I will conclude by asking the students to go forward down the number line so that they will conclude that this logical way of thinking works with how exponents work.

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How can this topic be used in your students’ future courses in mathematics or science?

Exponents are easier ways of representing the multiplication of a base by itself. The students will grasp the concept of exponents once they realize zero and negative exponents are obtained the same way positive ones are obtained, except going backwards.

Therefore, the grasp of exponents is important as they progress towards algebra 1 and 2 where variables are represented with exponents. This is very important as it represents a leap from linear equations to quadratic equations and subsequently cubic equations. Polynomials also greatly utilize exponents and learning how exponents work will allow the students to simplify complicated polynomials by combining like terms. Students learning negative exponents will also allow them to represent polynomials in fraction form which is sometimes easier to manipulate.

The knowledge of exponents is very important once they reach advanced math courses like pre-calculus, calculus and future college math courses. Differentiation and integration both heavily involves exponents.

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How does this topic extend what your students should have learned in previous courses?

Understanding how negative and zero exponents work depends on basic knowledge of arithmetic and manipulating fractions. Also the students must have prior knowledge on how positive exponents work.

Exponents is the next level after arithmetic. Arithmetic begins with understanding counting, then learning how to add. Multiplication is derived from addition and it is basically the simplification of adding large groups of the same number. We can see that exponents is the next step after multiplication. The simplification of multiplying large groups of the same number.

However, discovering how zero and negative exponents are obtained requires the use of division. Students will apply their knowledge on how to divide and how to represent division as fractions. E.g. 1 divide by 2 can represented as ½.

Of course this requires the basic knowledge on how exponents themselves work and understanding how the exponent depends on the number of times we multiply the base.

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